Over the past few years I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory. My mind isn’t going—so far as I can tell—but it’s changing. I’m not thinking the way I used to think. I can feel it most strongly when I’m reading. Immersing myself in a book or a lengthy article used to be easy. My mind would get caught up in the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I’d spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That’s rarely the case anymore. Now my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel as if I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle.Following up on the article (the whole thing of which I still haven't read--evidence to prove the thesis!), Andrew Sullivan echoes similar sentiments in an article for the UK's Sunday Times:
I think I know what’s going on. For more than a decade now, I’ve been spending a lot of time online, searching and surfing and sometimes adding to the great databases of the Internet. The Web has been a godsend to me as a writer. Research that once required days in the stacks or periodical rooms of libraries can now be done in minutes. A few Google searches, some quick clicks on hyperlinks, and I’ve got the telltale fact or pithy quote I was after. Even when I’m not working, I’m as likely as not to be foraging in the Web’s info-thickets—reading and writing e-mails, scanning headlines and blog posts, watching videos and listening to podcasts, or just tripping from link to link to link. (Unlike footnotes, to which they’re sometimes likened, hyperlinks don’t merely point to related works; they propel you toward them.)
For me, as for others, the Net is becoming a universal medium, the conduit for most of the information that flows through my eyes and ears and into my mind. The advantages of having immediate access to such an incredibly rich store of information are many, and they’ve been widely described and duly applauded. “The perfect recall of silicon memory,” Wired’s Clive Thompson has written, “can be an enormous boon to thinking.” But that boon comes at a price. As the media theorist Marshall McLuhan pointed out in the 1960s, media are not just passive channels of information. They supply the stuff of thought, but they also shape the process of thought. And what the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.
Are we fast losing the capacity to think deeply, calmly and seriously? Have we all succumbed to internet attention-deficit disorder? Or, to put it more directly: if you’re looking at a monitor right now, are you still reading this, or are you about to click on another link?He writes:
His conclusion seems right to me:
I spend most of my day blogging – at a current rate of about 300 posts a week. I’m certainly not more stupid than I used to be; and I’m much, much better and more instantly informed.
However, the way in which I now think and write has subtly – or not so subtly – altered. I process information far more rapidly and seem able to absorb multiple sources of information simultaneously in ways that would have shocked my teenage self.
In researching a topic, or just browsing through the blogosphere, the mind leaps and jumps and vaults from one source to another. The mental multitasking – a factoid here, a YouTube there, a link over there, an e-mail, an instant message, a new PDF – is both mind-boggling when you look at it from a distance and yet perfectly natural when you’re in mid-blog.
When it comes to sitting down and actually reading a multiple-page print-out, or even, God help us, a book, however, my mind seizes for a moment. After a paragraph, I’m ready for a new link. But the prose in front of my nose stretches on.
I get antsy. I skim the footnotes for the quick info high that I’m used to. No good. I scan the acknowledgments, hoping for a name I recognise. I start again.
A few paragraphs later, I reach for the laptop. It’s not that I cannot find the time for real reading, for a leisurely absorption of argument or narrative. It’s more that my mind has been conditioned to resist it.
We need to be both pond-skaters and scuba divers. We need to master the ability to access facts while reserving time and space to do something meaningful with them.Somewhat related, see also Robert Darnton's essay, The Library in the New Age, published in the June 12, 2008 edition of The New York Review of Books (June 12, 2008). Al Mohler says: "Darnton's article may well be the most sane and sensible essay yet written on the future of books and libraries in the digital future."